You can download the entire 7-Step Chord Progression Theory Guide as a PDF for FREE! Simply click here to check out for free.

Many beginning players and songwriters believe that you need to know hundreds of chords to play or write lots of songs. Not so. You can play or write thousands of songs with just a handful of chords AND a basic understanding of chord progressions. This simple theory guide will explain what a chord progressions is, show you how they are formed, and teach you how to construct and apply them in any key easily and quickly.

Many music teachers would argue that this guide is an oversimplified, superficial shortcut to understanding chord progressions and the theory behind them. They would be 100% correct. Nonetheless, this guide will get you up and running very quickly; all you need to learn are just a few musical terms, a Major scale, a simple numbering system, and how to interpret a simple chart.

NOTE! This guide assumes that you know the names of the notes on each fret of the low E and A string on your guitar. To get the most out of this guide, you should also know the basic open position chords and barre chords (major, minor and seventh chords).

Step 1 – Do Re Mi

There are only 12 notes in all of Western music: A, A# or Bb, B, C, C# or Db, D, D# or Eb, E, F, and F# or Gb. The Major Scale can be viewed as the foundation from which ALL scales and ALL chords are formed. There are only 12 Major scales, each of the twelve starting on one of the 12 notes listed above. The Major scale is comprised of 7 notes. See the C Major scale spelled out below:

chord progression theory

The popular Do-Re-Mi song represents the notes of a Major scale:

chord progression theory

Step 2 – Scale Degrees

The sequence of notes in the scale are referred to as Scale Degrees, and are numbered from 1 to 7:

chord progression theory

The distance between those 7 notes is specified in Whole Steps and Half Steps where a half step equals one fret and a whole step equals two frets.
In the chart below, you’ll note that the distance between C and D is a whole step (2 frets) but the distance between the E and the F note is only a half step. Use this formula with any note and you will have the Major Scale in the key of that note.

chord progression theory

Step 3 – Major & Minor Chords

There are two basic types of chords: Major and Minor chords. Chords are made when a combination of notes from a scale are played at the same time. For example, if you play a C, E and G note all at the same time, you are playing a C Major chord. If you play an E, G and B note at the same time, you are playing a D Minor chord.

The first note of the Major scale also is the name of the Key. So, the C Major scale and all of the corresponding chords built from that scale are all in the Key of C. Each scale degree has a Chord Type associated with it: 3 Major chords, 3 Minor chords and 1 Diminished chord (don’t worry about this chord type for now).

chord progression theory

Add the name of the corresponding note to the chord type and you’ll have all of the Major and Minor chords associated with that scale.

chord progression theory

The 5th degree chord (in this case the G) is often times a Dominant 7th chord, which is still a Major Chord but it will be referred to as G7.

Step 4 – Chord Progressions

A Chord Progression is a sequence of chords from the same Key, built from the same Major scale, which is repeated throughout a song as a verse, chorus or bridge. Songs consist of one or more chord progressions. Songs can also change keys within the framework of the song. There are only a few chord progressions used in popular music, and thousands upon thousands of songs are played with these same chord progressions.

For example, thousands of popular rock, folk and blues songs are played using a chord progression, in the key of C, consisting of the chords C, F and G or C, F and G7. Musicians and singers play songs in different keys to either accommodate the instrumentation or more usually to accommodate the pitch range of the vocalist.

Step 5 – Transposing Chord Progressions

To play a song in a different key, the chords have to be transposed to the new key. For example, a song might need to be transposed from the Key of C to the Key of D to accommodate the vocalist.

To transpose a chord progression from the key of C to the key of D, instead of using the C Major scale as the foundation, the D Major scale is used. The relationship between the scale, the scale degrees and the chord types remain consistent — only the notes and the chord names change.

chord progression theory

Step 6 – Nashville Numbering System

To make quick transposition of chord progressions easier for musicians, a method known as the Nashville Numbering System was devised, where chords are indicated by a scale degree. This evolved into a system where upper and lower case Roman numerals are used (minor chords are indicated with lower case Roman numerals).

chord progression theory

This numbering system makes it extremely easy to write out chord progressions and transpose songs to other keys, For example, in the key of C, instead of writing a progression as C Major, D Minor and G Major, the progression is spelled I-ii-V and spoken as a “One, Two, Five in the key of C.”

If the vocalist needs a different key, the vocalist would simply call the same I-ii-V progression but ask for it in the key of D. The musicians would know to play a D Major, E Minor and A Major.

Step 7 – Applications

To apply this system to any progression, in any key, you simply apply the formulas that we’ve provided for you in this guide. You’ll quickly learn that certain keys are used much more frequently than other keys and these will be come second nature to you.

You’ll also quickly be able to do the translations of the numbering system to chord names without having to reference a chart especially if you play barre chords, as you’ll start to recognize the visual patterns of these chord progressions on your fretboard and can simply move the progression up or down on your neck.

chord progression theory

Use the following blank charts to chart out ALL of the keys for your own reference. This will really help you understand and apply the principles presented in this guide.

chord progression theory

You can download the entire 7-Step Chord Progression Theory Guide as a PDF for FREE! Simply click here to check out for free.